Robert Sheridan, Regional Programme Manager at Gheel Autism Services, a graduate of the Executive MBA programme at DCU Business School, has developed and launched a new innovative programme with Gheel Autism Services called IMPACT.
IMPACT is an Acronym for Inspiring Meaningful Progressive Autistic Career Transition. IMPACT, in line with Article 27 of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, (UNCRPD), is designed to function as a pillar at Gheel to support career and employment supports for aspiring Autistic professionals and employers through building their capacity toward shaping a neurodiverse working culture.
IMPACT actively supports Autistic Adults to reflect on and overcome their own self-doubts, in addition to other intrinsic barriers that more often prevent Autistic Adults from taking the next step into employment.
What makes IMPACT unique is that it offers peer-to-peer supports and mentorship from existing Autistic Adults and professionals who currently work within industry. These professionals offer IMPACT candidates a supportive network by means of sharing their own personal experiences of work while demonstrating how they overcame their own intrinsic and external barriers throughout their own careers and sharing their experience in what it means to be an inclusive employer. Mentors and guests that have helped shape these supports include.
Carley Jones – Autism Advocate MBE Autism Advisor to the NHS and Author of Safeguarding Autistic Girls.
Danny Taylor – Smith, Digital Marketing Strategist and TEDx Speaker.
Ellie Middleton – Content Creator, Autistic Activist, and influencer on LinkedIn.
Jube Marrow – Entrepreneur, TEDx Speaker.
Robert describes the IMPACT programme (accredited by CPD) as a holistic initiative that also helps organisations in developing a neurodiverse culture. IMPACT offers onsite support to managers, team leaders and staff regarding Autism informed recruitment strategies, interview supports, induction/onboarding, and transition supports into the workplace. IMPACT’s most significant pillar focuses on employment retention for the employer and employee through developing good working partnerships and ongoing support practices when necessary.
To date, the IMPACT Programme has opened employment opportunities through partnerships with several companies such as – Woodies, Lifestyle Sports, SuperValu (Musgrave), Dunnes Stores, Accenture, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, Odeon Cinema Group, Kerry Europe, Failte Ireland, DCU, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), and Business in The Community Ireland. Currently, IMPACT and Gheel, in partnership with DCU, are finalising a participatory research paper exploring the intrinsic barriers to employment which young Autistic people face within their career journey. This paper is set to be published and officially launched at a special event in Dublin City Centre later this year.
Supporting a shift in organisational Culture
Robert believes that successfully placing a candidate should not be a measurement of the overall success in reaching a neurodivergent culture – but as a partial milestone toward building one for the future. IMPACT prides itself in supporting organisations to shift its culture in support of one that’s neurodivergent.
Robert emphasises that communication is a key factor for success and refers to an important quote he read across in his studies at DCU – “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said – Peter Drucker. Robert points out that in all organisations there is a hidden curriculum that we all need to navigate through, that’s especially challenging for some autistic individuals. The Hidden Curriculum refers to the overall behaviours and attitudes that are embedded within the organisation that is not written in the policy.
IMPACT recognises that it is fundamentally important that employers, from the outset, are receptive to a necessary culture shift to meet the needs of the Autistic employee – while investing in the practical learnings and actions that come with meeting those needs.
Robert points out that ensuring the right culture fit is a critical success factor for every stakeholder to support any organisations change agenda. The IMPACT Programme believes that raising awareness about Autism is essential to reaching Autism Acceptance. Robert’s experience to date has led him to believe in the importance of having line managers and HR professionals equipped with the skills to support staff who are Autistic. Robert makes the point that Good Autism-Awareness and Acceptance benefit the workplace as well as how an organisation performs and delivers its services to all its staff and customers.
Robert highlights the Connective Interdependent Employment Model” as a blueprint to illustrate a successful internal structure – Developed by Jackie M. Marquette, Ph.D., and explains that the model maps out a culture within an organisation that promotes value and interdependence among company employees. A model that has proven to create outcomes that are a win/win for the employees and the business.
Fig 1.0 – CIE Model
IMPACT – The Process
Robert stresses that matching the autistic candidates to the role plays a big part in easing the Autistic employee into and through work via a framework of support that offers a seamless transition into the orientation of working. However, in some cases, an employer may not have the operational capacity within itself to execute this and may seek help from IMPACT to assess any gaps in supports across the team, the department, and even the business. Robert points out that the process of support, depending on the needs of the applicant and or the employer, can be broken down into 7 steps.
Building Capacity for Support.
Supporting an Applied Learning Approach.
Supporting Communication Strategies.
Supporting Change and Self-Management Strategies.
Guidance and Review.
Retention Supports and ongoing Autism Awareness Training.
IMPACT – Building Capacity for Support
At the initial stages of placement, IMPACT believes in building confidence in the employer through partnership by building their capacity internally to support as part of their overall induction and integration stages. For example, the program may introduce practical options outside the interview process. This process supports the individual(s) application and the company’s people strategy to test future talent without subjecting the individual(s) through a rigorous interview process while reducing time and cost to the employer.
During the induction and onboarding process, the IMPACT support set up a buddy system whereby the Autistic Champion or ‘Buddy’ can act as a mentor to help explain/translate workplace culture, instructions, and comments, explain policies and/or expectations about staff conduct and workplace behaviour(s).
IMPACT – Identifying Accommodations
IMPACT works in partnership with the company to ensure work location/tasks do not cause unnecessary excessive stimulation to the Autistic employee – such as distracting sounds, smells, or sights including the avoidance of fluorescent lights (humming or flickering can be distracting).
IMPACT – Supporting an Applied Learning Approach
Robert points out that clear and structured training is invaluable from the outset and must be reviewed depending on the individual(s) and organisation’s needs. This can be provided informally on the job in partnership with a Gheel’s practice staff, a line manager, colleagues, or a mentor while keeping the candidate at the centre of the process. Robert notes that performance output is more effective if on-the-job training and support are fluid across the organisation at all levels.
IMPACT – Supporting Communication Strategies
Robert outlines that in some cases, it may be helpful that a two-way communication strategy in partnership with the employer and candidate is agreed upon. The IMPACT process assists the employer and the candidate with identifying what this will look like and how it can be used and executed to ensure long-term success so that there is no ambiguity on a daily basis. In some cases, it may start out as a pilot to allow for a more agile or flexible approach so that a more refined approach can be developed over time.
IMPACT – Supporting Change and Self-Management Strategies
Some Autistic people can be quite meticulous and can become anxious if their performance is not perfect, which is seen as an intrinsic challenge. This means they may become stressed in a situation such as an IT failure, or if they occasionally arrive late due to transport problems, change in manager/staff on-site or other unpreventable factors. With the support of IMPACT, the employer will be able to explore change management strategies that may offer reassurance that these occurrences are not a problem and inform the Autistic Employee what to do in these circumstances. In addition, IMPACT recognises the importance of independence and self-regulation in times of change and will work in partnership with the individual to explore their own coping strategies outside of external supports and natural supports.
IMPACT – Guidance and Review
Despite IMPACT using a support reduction model, Robert points out that it is important that the job support team is aware that this too is a learning curve for the employer and not just the employee. Therefore, the process of communication which IMPACT adopts ensures that all stakeholders review and evaluate when additional direction or support is required where performance may be an issue. This process, depending on the employer, can be carried out with or without their HR Function. It may be necessary for a review meeting to be held at frequent intervals at the early stages of job commencement and should be carried out using a 360 approach. Depending on the individual, the process of supports that IMPACT offers endeavours to encourage the employer to hold regular one-to-one meetings to discuss and review performance and give overall comments and suggestions in a clear manner e.g., in a brief and frequent manner where reviews may be more helpful than longer sessions at less frequent intervals. In addition, Autistic people can sometimes find it difficult to notice social cues. IMPACT assists the employers in delivering clear feedback that is constructive, and consistent to support to all parties concerned.
IMPACT – Retention Supports and ongoing Awareness Training (Practice Team)
Robert points out that succession and job retention come with the right job match however, this is something where many organisations fail! When an organisation embraces an individual for their strengths and invests in them it should naturally open advancement opportunities for both the company and the individual. When opportunities arise for career advancement, some Autistic people may require additional encouragement and support. The IMPACT process is there to support the employee and the employer through discussions and future negotiations over new roles and responsibilities, as well as reasonable accommodations during the transition to a new role. Robert highlights that this must be approached in an individualised manner as everyone is different. Robert stresses that some Autistic employees’ may prefer to avoid changes in their routine and/or their physical environment, as these may cause significant stress. While this should be respected, Robert highlights that opportunities for career advancement should not be avoided on this basis alone.
IMPACT helps to support the employer in giving the appropriate encouragement towards career advancement.
IMPACT will support the person to access training and development opportunities and support the employer in setting out training and development is autism friendly.
Since its inception in 2021 IMPACT has successfully worked with over 50 applicants in their work and career journey and continues to support new applicants who have left college, dropped out of school, or who require existing supports in their work to support retention. Robert has presented the framework to ASIAM stakeholders, employability and continues to work closely with employers within a consultancy capacity.
Considering that policy has caught up with the UNCRPD – employers, through no fault of their own, are lagging behind what is necessary in making the workplace not only a place of equitable support for the autistic community. Robert acknowledges that there is still a lot of work to be down on the ground where funding structures need to be reviewed and more support is required to support and educate employers in reaching their full neurodivergent potential.
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